Colonies and Conversion

Boyarin’s Latest Foray Into the Anthropology of the Other

By Gordon Haber

Published February 03, 2010, issue of February 12, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe
By Jonathan Boyarin
University of Chicago Press, 208 pages, $32.50.

Some years ago, on a lovely fall morning, I was walking across the Columbia University campus when I saw a group of students unfurl a huge banner that announced “Columbus=Hitler.” Since, at the time, I was teaching a course called “Logic and Rhetoric,” I thought it would be interesting to ask my own students what they thought about the slogan. To my surprise, most of them agreed that Columbus was in fact equivalent to Hitler, but only one could tell me how many Jews Hitler had slaughtered, and none could estimate how many Indians had died from Spanish imperialism.

My point is neither to defend Columbus nor to suggest we should evaluate historical figures with some kind of grim arithmetic. I only wish to point out that many of us have false assumptions about colonialism. Even professional historians have their working assumptions, one being that the nature of Christian Europe can be neatly demarcated by 1492. The conventional wisdom is that Europe found its “other,” its supposed opposite against which it could define itself, when it found the indigenous peoples of the New World. At least this is Jonathan Boyarin’s assertion in “The Unconverted Self: Jews, Indians, and the Identity of Christian Europe.” While Boyarin may be exaggerating the popularity of this assumption, he is quite correct to remind us that European Christians had been dealing with “others” — namely, Jews and Muslims — long before that greedy Italian navigator met the Arawaks of the Caribbean.

I should make clear that Boyarin’s book is less history than historiography. While there are some loaded words in the title (“Jews,” “Indians,” “Unconverted”), this is not a book for those who seek an indignant discussion of genocide or gory tidbits about the Inquisition. Nor is it a book for the casual student of history. Boyarin actually wants to correct the errors of his colleagues, and to raise questions rather than answer them definitively. He assumes, therefore, a familiarity with Spain’s limpieza de sangre (blood purity laws first enacted in the late 15th century) and the ideas of Bartolomé de las Casas (a 16th-century missionary who quaintly suggested not brutalizing Africans and indigenous Americans). This approach will alienate many nonacademic readers — as will the reliance on secondary sources and the jargon-laden prose, with its discussion of “spatial and imaginative containers of Christian-ness.”

Which is not to say that “The Unconverted Self” is unenlightening. Boyarin has corrected many of my own assumptions. For instance, while I was used to thinking of Christian Europe as suffering from an excess of confidence, the impression that emerges here is one of profound insecurity. As Boyarin points out, Europe on the verge of colonialist expansion had a significant Muslim and Jewish and even pagan presence. Christians saw these populations as geographical and hermeneutical threats — hence the Christian rhetoric about “cruel Turks,” the Talmud-burning, the rigged debates between Christians and Jews.

One of the more interesting (and disturbing) sections of “The Unconverted Self” concerns how Christians defined what it meant to be human. In the 12th century, reason was supposedly the criterion — and if Jews did not demonstrate their capacity for reason by becoming Christian, then they must be something less than human. Later, when the Indians were “discovered,” their humanity also became an open question. Columbus habitually referred to them as “pieces.” Others theorized that the native peoples were descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel. While this might put them on the same (low) level as actual Jews, one ingeniously boneheaded friar suggested that it would be inappropriate to accuse the Indians of murdering Jesus, as their lost ancestors might have settled the Americas well before the life of Christ.

Much of “The Unconverted Self” is often needlessly complicated. But the merit of its complexity is that Boyarin presents no pat answers, no slogans, about the fraught relationship between the colonial powers and their “others,” whether they be Indian, Muslim or Jew. “We will never have a settled, synthetic picture,” he writes. “The past won’t sit still for us.” Nevertheless, studying the past does help us understand the present. While much of Western Europe is avowedly post-Christian, many Europeans still define themselves as not Muslim or not Jewish. Which suggests that in some ways, Europe hasn’t changed much in the past 500 years.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.